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How Can Gun Violence Be Prevented?

AR-15 rifle
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Guns kill people, and sometimes they kill a bunch of people in one go, as happened in the recent grocery store shooting in Buffalo, New York, and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Thoughts and prayers, yada yada yada, but what can be done to actually reduce gun violence?

This post focuses on youth gun violence. It also focuses on the United States, because while gun violence is not only an American problem, it is a much bigger problem in the US than in any other developed nation. The graph below starkly demonstrates this.

Firearm rates in the USA > 4 per 100,000 people vs. < 1 per 100,000 in other developed nationso
RCraig09, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Doing better for kids

An effective prevention approach needs to include taking a long view at the factors early in life that contribute to violent behaviour later on. People are not born mass murderers; there’s a path they follow to get there, and childhood has a big impact on that path.

Prevention can start even before children are born. Prenatal factors like maternal substance abuse, stress, and malnutrition increase the likelihood of the child developing early-onset aggression, which is a significant risk factor for later antisocial behaviour.

Adverse childhood experiences can increase the risk of future violence. A longitudinal study by Lansford et al. found that physical abuse before age five predicted violent delinquency in adolescence and other dysfunctional behaviours. This was influenced by biased patterns of processing social information, including a tendency to draw on retaliatory aggressive responses and see aggression as morally acceptable.

Poverty can set kids up for failure right from the start. According to US census figures, 16.1% of people under the age of 18 were living in poverty in 2020. Addressing poverty, and particularly child poverty, isn’t going to save lives from gun violence next week or next month, but by supporting healthy childhood development, it can make a difference down the road.

Violence in TV, film, and video games does not make people violent, but such exposure can adversely affect vulnerable children by normalizing violence and desensitizing them to it.

Community-level interventions

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified a number of evidence-based strategies to prevent youth violence, such as:

  • Promoting family environments supporting healthy childhood development through interventions like early childhood home visitation and parenting skills programs
  • Providing quality preschool education
  • Strengthening youth skills through universal school programs in areas like communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving, emotional regulation, impulse control, and empathy
  • Connect youth with caring adults and activities through mentoring and after-school programs

Identifying those at risk for gun violence

School-related factors that are associated with an increased risk of future violence include:

  • academic failure (particularly when it starts in elementary school)
  • low school interest
  • truancy
  • school dropout

Socially marginalization and rejection by peers can amplify existing predispositions toward aggression. When such youth connect with others in similar positions, that can further increase risk.

While there’s no profile of a typical school shooter, common characteristics of the majority (>50%) of school shooters include:

  • male
  • white
  • have experienced bullying or rejection
  • acquired a firearm from home or people they knew
  • premeditated
  • usually not involved with gangs
  • confided in someone about their motives
  • had indicators of future violence, such as making threats or past acts of violence

(Source: Price & Khubchandani, 2019)

The role of gender norms

While most men are not violent, perpetrators of gun violence are overwhelmingly male. Toxic masculinity doesn’t help anyone, and we need to stop teaching our boys to restrict their emotions, particularly vulnerable emotions like sadness. Some researchers have suggested that school shooters have a sense of aggrieved entitlement, viewing revenge as appropriate responses for men who have been victimized (e.g. through bullying).

The role of mental health and illness

While mass murderers are not well-adjusted individuals, diagnosable mental illness is not the predictive factor that politicians and the media often make it out to be. The vast majority of people experiencing mental illness do not pose a risk for violence.

However, for the small proportion that do, available, accessible, and effective treatment can help to mitigate that risk on an individual level. Substance abuse can also increase the risk for violence in some individuals, and again, treatment can help to mitigate that.

Not everyone with poor mental health has a mental illness. A lot of hate makes for poor mental health, but hate isn’t a mental illness. Making counselling services more available to youth either in school or after school could help to meet the needs of those kids who are struggling but don’t have an illness that requires treatment.

Risk assessment

The Attitudes Toward Guns and Violence Questionnaire (AGVQ) is a standardized test that can be used with children and youth. There are four factors that are associated with children and youth owning or wanting to own a gun:

  • the belief that aggression is the only way to undo the shame of being insulted
  • beliefs, values, and feelings consistent with a level of comfort with aggression
  • feelings of being excited/stimulated by guns
  • feelings of power and safety from carrying a gun

There are various risk assessment tools that can be used to evaluate whether an individual has characteristics (both static and dynamic) that are either protective or associated with an increased risk of violence, but these only estimate risk; it’s just not possible to predict who will perpetrate violence and who will not. That being said, “The most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior” (American Psychological Association, 2013).

There’s also a behavioural threat assessment model that was developed in large part by the US Secret Service. This includes assessing threats or violent statements made to peers, evaluating access to weapons, and identifying personal or situation problems that could be addressed through support services in order to reduce desperation and despondency and increase hope.

A role for social media platforms?

Following the 2022 shooting of African Americans at a grocery store in Buffalo, the Governor of New York asked the State Attorney General to investigate the social media platforms that the accused shooter had used to plan, promote, and broadcast his attacks. The shooter had live-streamed his attack on Twitch. Twitch removed it within less than two minutes of it starting, which I think is pretty impressive. The Governor asserted that Twitch should have taken it down “within a second”; I’m not sure how she thought that would even be possible. There have also been media reports that the shooter also posted a 589-page manifesto on Discord.

Social media platforms make an easy target for blame, but I’m not convinced that they make an effective avenue for intervention to actually decrease violence. By the time an individual is posting threats or manifestos, they pose a risk. Taking down those posts seems unlikely to reduce that risk. It shouldn’t be a social media company’s role to evaluate non-criminal speech to assess for a risk of harm to others. However, I can see a role for law enforcement agencies in monitoring risky online activity, especially on hotbeds of antisociality like 4chan. Perhaps social platforms could establish partnerships with law enforcement to flag content that might merit follow-up.

Interventions in schools

Some American school districts have taken steps to “harden” their schools to make them more resistant to violent attacks. Such measures include school resource officers (law enforcement officers in schools), video cameras, bulletproof glass, metal detectors, and active shooter plans. The problem is that there’s a lack of evidence to show that such measures actually work.

The authors of a paper in the journal Violence and Gender warn, “The adoption of ineffective measures to reduce school firearm violence may lull parents, school personnel, and students into thinking they no longer have to be concerned about their safety at school. A false sense of security is a dangerous environment that is currently being propelled by mass media, interest groups, and policymakers.” I think if I was a student at a school where there are metal detectors and teachers packing heat, I would feel less safe, not more.

Schools would likely accomplish more (and spend less) by taking steps to address bullying and resolve conflicts through strategies like peer mediation.

Gun control

According to polling conducted by Pew Research in April 2021, 53% of Americans favoured stricter gun control laws. There was a huge split based on political leanings, with 81% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents favouring stricter laws and only 20% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. There was also a split between rural and urban dwellers, with urban dwellers being more likely to support stricter gun control, regardless of political affiliation.

In the same poll, 49% of respondents thought stricter gun control laws would result in fewer mass shootings, 42% thought it would make no difference, and 9% thought it would result in more mass shootings. You’ve gotta wonder who those 9% are.

Background checks

While the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) makes background checks quick and easy, private party sales and sales at gun shows often don’t require background checks. Regardless, there are limitations to what can be accomplished with background checks; everyone is a non-criminal right up until the point that they commit their first crime.

Extreme risk protection orders

As of July 2020, 19 states and the District of Columbia had red flag laws that allow the courts to issue extreme risk protection orders. These orders temporarily restrict an individual’s right to access firearms based on concerns raised by petitioners (e.g. family, school officials) that the individual poses an imminent risk for violence.

This seems like a sensible thing that should exist as a bare minimum in all states.

Assault rifles

While people often talk about “assault rifles”, there’s no single agreed-upon definition of what constitutes an assault rifle. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) describes semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 as “Modern Sporting Rifles”; it uses the term “assault rifle” only for fully automatic weapons. Semi-automatic weapons automatically load the next bullet, but one trigger pull releases one bullet, whereas with a fully automatic weapon, bullets will continue to fire as long as the trigger is depressed.

The NSSF offers the following statistics in a 2020 article:

  • “Since 1990, there are an estimated 19.8 million Modern Sporting Rifles (MSRs) in circulation today.”
  • “There are approximately 71.2 million pistol magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, and 79.2 million rifle magazines capable of holding 30 or more rounds in circulation.”

Thirty or more rounds? For a civilian? That’s terrifying.

The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons ban, which expired in 2004, banned magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Some American cities and states currently have high-capacity magazine bans, with each jurisdiction having its own definition of the number of rounds that constitutes a high-capacity magazine.

Legislative barriers

A big reason why this is an American problem rather than an everywhere problem is the Constitution’s Second Amendment, passed in 1791. It states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” I’m sure lawmakers at the time never dreamed what a shitshow that would create in the 21st century. I wonder if they would have worded it differently had they seen semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines in their handy dandy crystal ball.

Driving hard to the net on the Second Amendment is the National Rifle Association, which has considerable lobbying power. According to OpenSecrets, it and its subsidiaries spent $3.22 million on federal lobbying in 2019. That’s a lot of influence.

The US Senate is a significant barrier to changing gun laws. Senate filibuster rules allow 41 of 100 senators to prevent a bill from going to a vote. That gives a lot of power to a minority. An article in The Atlantic points out that because states each get two senators regardless of their population, the Republican representation in the Senate often outweighs the proportion of the overall population that they represent, which gives more weight to pro-gun views.

Practicalities

Let’s say that gun control legislation did make it through the Senate, as unlikely as that seems. What on earth do you do with the 20 million or so semiautomatic rifles that are already in circulation? You’ve probably got plenty of people like Charlton Heston who wouldn’t give up their guns unless it was “from my cold, dead hands.” Do those people get shipped off to jail, probably taking out multiple police officers along the way? For other people who aren’t quite so attached to their semi-automatics, do you try to get some of those weapons out of circulation with a buy-back program? That would be an expensive proposition.

That’s something the Canadian government decided to do. It surprised me that semi-automatic weapons were even a thing here, but in 2020, the federal government banned specific weapons it describes as “assault-style firearms.” They set up an amnesty period, giving gun owners until 2023 to turn in their now-prohibited firearms. The government has promised (but not yet implemented) a buy-back program to give people “fair compensation.”

Besides controlling the number of guns, “smart guns” are an option to reduce risk; these only allow the gun to be fired by an authorized user. That doesn’t stop anyone from buying a gun, but it can get in the way of youth using their parents’ firearms.

Banning high-capacity magazines countrywide strikes me as a basic sensible choice that should be a bare minimum to address the issue of gun violence. It seems like it would be relatively easy to implement, plus how on earth is there any good reason for a civilian to be able to fire off 10+ rounds before needing to reload? The fact that the 1994 ban lapsed in 2004 and hasn’t been brought back since is just incomprehensible to me.

So what now?

As much as gun control seems like the answer (after all, that’s what sets the US apart from countries that don’t have that level of gun violence), the Second Amendment isn’t going anywhere, and the Senate filibuster likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon either. However, when politicians respond to yet another mass shooting by blaming mental illness and defending guns, that’s shameful. I don’t know how to stop that, but maybe people need to stop voting politicians like that into office.

Dealing with the gun situation is essential, but it’s also important for prevention work to happen before anyone tries to get their hands on a gun. Violent youth and adults aren’t suddenly appearing out of nowhere. America needs to do better for its children, and that’s got to be a long-term project. Guns make the killing part easier, but they’re not what plants the early seeds.

Gun violence is a complex problem, and the more angles it can be approached from, the better. But more thoughts and prayers? No; that’s already happening. It’s time for action. Not short-sighted knee-jerk reactions, but actions that address the people and the guns that come together to produce violent deaths. Then those actions need to be carefully evaluated to make sure they’re actually working; if not, then it’s time to come up with more actions.

That’s the least that America can do for all those who have lost their lives to senseless violence.

References

43 thoughts on “How Can Gun Violence Be Prevented?”

  1. Well done. I liked the point you make about mental illness, the poor mental health (like hate) isn’t the same thing. A problem, but not the same.

    1. Yeah, it seems like it’s easy for people to fall into the trap of thinking these shooters aren’t well, so they must be ill, whereas in reality there are a lot of fucked up people out there who don’t have a mental illness.

    2. Kathryn E McKeever

      I absolutely agree that our gun violence starts with mental health issues and what’s tragic is the shooter shows signs even to therapist who fail to report. We need more vigorous background checks and longer waiting times to purchase a fire arm.

      One of the things I’ve heard repeatedly is that therapist should turn anyone with a mental illness. I’ve explained that if that were to be done then those with mental illness will not seek help. If a therapist thinks a patient is a danger to him/herself then they are obligated to report it but we’ve seen too many times where a therapist knew their patient is a danger and failed to report it.

      Mind you, I am not suggesting what these kids are doing is right but another issue is kid’s being bullied in school and very little has been done about it. Too many teachers turn a blind eye and these kids are being torched to get death. It doesn’t just happen at schools but they get harassed on the internet too. This is a problem that must be dealt with as it’s part of the another part of the problem.

      My daughter was at a school ai’n Seattle that got targeted fortunately only one person was killed and countless others were saved by John Meis who too immediate action. I am forever in his debt. I couldn’t reach my daughter for an hour. It was the longest hour of my life.

      I suffer from Bipolar, ADHD, severe anxiety and other mental illnesses. I won’t purchase a gun because I can’t predict if I will have a psychotic break in the future although I do every thing I can l to manage my illnesses whereas a great amount of people fail to take there meds as they think they’re better, failing to recognize that it’s the meds that are making them feel better and typically don’t stay with therapy. There are times when I get tired of taking my meds but I stay on them for 2 reasons, I know the destruction I will cause and I’ll hurt those I love.

      The truth is that I don’t know what the answer is but too many children are being slaughter and it’s preventable.

      1. I’m glad your daughter was safe: I can’t imagine the terror of waiting in the case of a school shooting. And you’re so right about the bullying. In schools, it seems to be protect the perpetrator and make the victims deal with the problem forever. Sigh.

  2. What an incredibly well thought-out and researched post. You have helped me so much to think about the problem in our society that has been weighing on my heart. I was especially struck by your point about toxic masculinity and need to help people, especially men, voice their feelings so they don’t become shame that they need to respond with aggression. You’ve given us a lot to think about and hopefully DO – thank you, Ashley!

  3. I love your ability to speak of touchy subjects respectfully to both sides of the debate, while still letting your own opinion shine through. A high quality piece. As always.

  4. Thanks so much for the post! I may be in the minority but I believe we need some sort of “buck stops here” legislation. I feel the Supreme Court has a role to play in stopping the buck. If the Supreme Court can tell a woman whether or not she can terminate an unwanted pregnancy, they need to apply that same reverence of life to the victims of mass shooting and to preventing this in the future. How can the Supreme Court dictate how to treat a heartbeat but have no stake in saving the lives of innocent children cut tragically short by someone who has easy access to multiple types of weapons. I find the Supreme Court lacking in consistency in how to honor a life or lives. I would like the Supreme Court to stand up and say the buck stops here even if it is incredibly complicated and an issue of the Constitutional Amendments versus legal precedent of Roe V Wade. Ultimately I don’t care what kind of loopholes the Supreme Court has, I find them responsible for treating all life or lives equally regardless of amendments versus legal precedents.

    1. I think there is a substantial diffrence between the constitution and legal precedent, though. The Supreme Court is empowered to rule on whether laws are constitutional or not, but they can’t amend the constitution, which is probably a good thing given that they’re not elected. Constitutional amendments require the support of 2/3 of both Houses of Congress and 3/4 of State legislatures, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.

  5. I agree with your logic. But emotionally it feels like people just keep passing the buck to someone else and never take action on next steps to end mass shootings. I am ashamed of the US for its inability to make progress in this regard. Makes me really angry.

    1. Kathryn E McKeever

      I completely agree. So many Americans are terrified that their guns will confiscated. I think many of them are entitled to own guns but we need to make getting a gun more rigorous: longer wait times, a though back ground checks, and perhaps limiting the amount of ammunition one could purchase at one time would be a great start. Why would anyone need a gun in 3 days? It’s absurd. Enough is an enough. Sadly I don’t think anything is going to change because the Gun Lobby is simply to powerful. The only way it will change is through Campaign Form.

  6. Yes. And those are the same people who want to intervene to save a “life” when a woman is pregnant. They need to get straight what life is worth protecting? A heartbeat with no memory or a child of 8 or 10 with intellect, emotions, perspectives, family ties and so forth. Why protect one and not the other? Completely hypocritical and amoral. I agree it is disgusting. I would also call it filthy dirty.

  7. In terms of holding politicians accountable, I might have a thought. Like SMART goals, but we’ll call them SMART standards here because it makes a politician look bad if they can’t live up to it. Let’s say we were to come together to say, here’s what we think is going on…
    1. Through studies suggesting that gun violence can be reduced through such and such, we want to see such and such practice being implemented into the community.
    2. We want to be sure it’ll be effective, so we want to monitor it’s progress through such and such actions that can be held accountable to and observed instantly.
    3 & 4. We’ve found that with this method, it’s not only effective towards realising our aims, but efficient and something easy to implement.
    5. We want this approach and it’s effectiveness to be revised for such and such a date, so that we can decide if it’s something worth continuing and building on further.
    We’d then go on to say that if you wish to disagree, produce something and hold it to a similar standard to what we’ve presented, so we know you’re not messing around and are taking this issue seriously.

    It might be difficult to change the politician, but until then, we can at least make them work for their position to a standard we expect them to be acting on.

      1. I had that in mind too. There’s a number of communication issues I can see ahead in doing so (plus how we might get around it), but if nothing else, it was better than never having a meaningful discussion with each other to begin with.

  8. Honestly, I feel very sad when I get such terrible news from the USA. Really, I cannot understand the situation nor can I put myself in your shoes to understand this tolerance for the possession of weapons. I hope there will be a solution soon.
    Greetings from Mallorca.

    1. I’m in Canada, and like European countries, we have very sensible gun laws. It’s so bizarre to me that an hour’s drive south from where I am, lots of people have guns, whereas here, no one does except hunters.

  9. What a well written post that critically looks into the factors other than guns. Hear hear hear.

    I have never been to the US and I am someone who wishes guns didn’t exist, although at this point I have a feeling trying to take guns off US citizens will be like trying to declaw a cat – painful and terrifying due to removing something that they have always known. I don’t know what the solution is either. In phasing out smoking, NZ drafted a law that said “nobody born after X year can buy cigarettes from now on”. So it gets banned for the later generations. I imagine that would be the latter steps of gun control could look like. But good luck to the US getting that conversation started without hysteria about government tyranny.

    1. Yeah, people accusing the government of tyranny over mask mandates doesn’t bode well for gun control.

      I hadn’t heard of NZ’s smoking law before. I wonder how effective that will end up being. Prohibition doesn’t work very well for other things, but maybe the generational aspect will help get around that.

  10. Excellent research and article. I believe those are important ways in which gun violence can be avoided. I also don’t believe that extreme measures will work based on what happens in other countries.

  11. Thanks again for the post. I am sorry to be so angry about the situation. What I don’t get is that the gun lobby/politicians are saying that preventive measures such as red flag laws, changing the legal age to 21 instead of 18 for gun purchase and so on would not have made a difference in recent mass shootings or in mass shootings in general. How do they know that? If you haven’t tried intervention how do you know it doesn’t work?

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